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The State of the Documentary Field: 2016 Survey of Documentary Industry Members

By Caty Borum Chattoo

Editor’s Note: The complete PDF of this Survey, conducted by the Center for Media & Social Impact in collaboration with IDA, is available at both and


The Documentary Field at a Moment of Opportunity & Challenge

While documentary storytelling has long enjoyed a vibrant space in the media ecosystem - crossing fluidly between journalism and entertainment - the industry may be enjoying the early days of an evolving digital golden age. Documentary production, distribution and consumption practices have changed, in some ways radically, over the past few decades. The new century ushered in accessible digital production, new TV distribution opportunities, virtual reality, transmedia storytelling, and a revolution in audience consumption via online streaming and on-demand viewing. Increasingly layered distribution strategies - including festivals, theaters, TV, community-based and online - provide a pathway for documentaries to enjoy a longer and more dynamic life cycle with multiple audiences than ever before.

The evolution in form, audience demand and distribution will continue as new filmmakers enter the art and business of documentary production. The key players in the documentary field often are diverse hyphenates, wearing multiple hats on the same projects, from fundraising to writing to shooting to editing to marketing and more. The documentary ecosystem includes independent producers who create films while making a living through other means, to full-time makers, to distributors and funders, all of whom together shape the industry.

And yet, despite new opportunities for documentary filmmakers and audiences, particular challenges are persistent. Questions about sustainable systems and sources of revenue that can support career-making documentary work continue to plague makers of all kinds. Issues of racial, gender and ethnic diversity - both in terms of the credited makers themselves, as well as the focus of the stories told - continue to challenge the business and art of documentary filmmaking, dispelling the myth that the system of independent documentary filmmaking is markedly distinct from similar circumstances facing scripted Hollywood entertainment in film and on TV. As new audiences continue to discover documentary storytelling across various platforms, tracking industry professionals' perspectives and lived experiences in the field is a vital pursuit.



Given the opportunity and challenges of the moment, the timing is right for the inaugural "State of the Documentary Field" trend study to reflect the perspectives of documentary industry members. The study will be repeated bi-annually to provide trend data and new ideas over time.

Content Focus

This report reveals the results of a survey of documentary professionals conducted in the United States in 2016. The questions, crafted by the report author in consultation and collaboration with the leadership team from the International Documentary Association (IDA) - Simon Kilmurry, Ken Jacobson and Amy Halpin - were shaped based on informal insight-gathering and conversations with documentary professionals across the country. The survey included approximately 20 content questions and seven demographic questions. The study was designed to understand documentary industry members' perspectives and lived experiences based on four key themes that emerged as paramount to the field:  

  • Challenges & Motivations: The Present & the Future
  • Careers & Funding: Sustaining a Documentary Career & Funding the Work
  • Diversity & Inclusion: Race & Gender On and Behind the Camera
  • Distribution & Format: Getting Seen

Fielding Protocol & Dates

The survey was hosted online on Fluid Surveys (Survey Monkey), and the IDA-facilitated online data collection with documentary industry members; data collection began at the Sundance Film Festival on January 24, 2016, and it continued over the next several months via outreach to the IDA membership list (documentary filmmakers and other industry professionals) and social media channels from January through September 2016.

Composition of Respondents

The survey was completed by about 580 respondents as of September 5, 2016. The respondents comprise a range of documentary professionals—directors, producers, editors, directors of photography, as well as nonprofit professionals, film festival professionals, funders and others. However, the survey primarily represents the perspectives of those who identify as directors and producers. Participation in the survey was voluntary, and respondents were not provided with incentives. (Future efforts to secure respondents can and should include additional focus to increase full participation and survey completion by the documentary film community, perhaps with respondent incentives and marketing support; this study and report was not supported by any external funders - it was completed as an enterprise project.)

Summary Findings & Analysis

Summary findings for the primary questions are offered in this report. Deeper analysis broken down by gender is shown where notable distinctions appear (gender-based samples are similar in size). In terms of racial identification, sample sizes are markedly lower for non-white respondents, so accurate conclusions about differences between racial groups aren't possible with this data. 



Challenges & Motivations: 

  • By far, documentary film professionals see making a living as the most pressing issue facing the industry. They see the greatest challenges as funding for documentaries and sustainable careers, with more than two-thirds (67%) indicating these two categories are the "most challenging issues" today. 
  • Despite challenges, documentary professionals view this as an exciting time in the field. Eight in 10 (83%) agree or strongly agree that they are excited about the future of documentary. About two-thirds (64%) feel strongly this is a "golden era" for documentary.
  • In terms of specific trends in the field, documentary professionals are most optimistic ("very optimistic" and "optimistic") about: (1) new opportunities for online distribution (94%), (2) documentary's social impact (92%), (3) Web-based short-form documentaries (90%), and (4) new audiences discovering documentaries (90%). They are least optimistic about the distribution of documentaries in theaters (62 percent are "not optimistic" or "not at all optimistic") and crowdfunding for their work (41%).

Careers & Funding:

  • Only about 22 percent of documentary professionals say they are able to make their primary living from documentary filmmaking; about three-quarters (78%) say they are not at all able to make a living from their documentary work.
  • Combined, more than two-thirds (66%) of documentary makers made either no salary at all (36%), or less than 50 percent of their salary (30%), from their most recent documentaries. 
  • Half of the documentary film professionals surveyed report spending $5,000 to $50,000 on their most recent documentary projects. More than a quarter (27%) spent between $20,000 and $50,000 to fund their documentary work.
  • Foundation grants remain the top option as a main source of documentary funding (33%), followed by personal finances (24%) and broadcast and cable TV licensing deals (21%). Entities that are not at all sources of documentary funding, according to these documentary professionals, are: Film studios, online streaming platforms and corporate funders.
  • Documentary film professionals find revenue from their documentary work through a mix of non-film-industry sources and some traditional industry streams. About 61 percent of documentary professionals say educational distribution and DVD sales are tied at the top of the list for revenue from documentary work (as a contributing or main source of revenue). Other top revenue streams (as contributing or main sources of revenue), in order, are: grassroots and community screenings (52%), speaking engagements (49%), international TV broadcast licensing (46%) and self-distribution (44%). 

Diversity & Inclusion:

  • Despite recognized challenges of achieving greater levels of racial and gender diversity both in documentaries and among the individuals who make them, documentary professionals see the most progress in the representation of people of color in documentary stories (83 percent see this as "some" and "a great deal" of progress). 
  • Documentary professionals see the greatest challenge in this area in terms of people of color as producers and directors: Almost half (47%) believe there’s been no progress or not much progress on the inclusion of directors of color, and 56 percent feel the same way about including producers of color
  • In terms of gender, 87 percent of documentary professionals believe "some" and "a great deal" of progress has been made for documentary producers who are women, and 84 percent of documentary professionals believe the same for women documentary directors.

Distribution & Format:

  • Most documentary filmmakers still predominantly create long-form stories (feature-length or broadcast length); more than two-thirds (66%) produced a long-form documentary as their most recent film project. 
  • Film festivals are the primary form of distribution (73%), followed by grassroots/community screenings and educational screenings (both 49%), DVD sales (43%) and public TV (39%). Premium cable and cable VOD remain elusive. 
  • In terms of working in different formats, these documentary professionals are interested in working in new spaces: Web-only documentaries (45 percent have not worked in this format but plan to do so), virtual reality (45 percent have not worked in this format but plan to do so) and scripted film and TV (32%).

Demographics (survey respondents):

*All percentages are rounded up to the nearest whole number.

Gender Identification

  • Female: 60%
  • Male: 39%
  • Gender Not Listed: 1%

Racial Identification

  • White: 70%
  • Asian: 8%
  • Black or African American: 6%
  • Hispanic or Latino (including Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban): 6%
  • Middle Eastern/North African: 2%
  • Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander: 0.7%
  • American Indian or Alaska Native: 0.2%
  • Some Other Race (write-in): 8%


  • 18 to 24: 3%
  • 25 to 34: 15%
  • 35 to 49: 44%
  • 50 to 65: 33%
  • 65+: 6%

Annual Gross Personal Income (reporting last year)

  • Less than $25,000: 15%
  • $25,000-$49,999: 23%
  • $50,000-$74,999: 24%
  • $75,000-$99,000: 15%
  • $100,000-$149,999: 14%
  • $150,000-$199,999: 4%
  • $200,000 or more: 5%

Education (highest level completed)

  • High School: 3%
  • Undergraduate Degree: 48%
  • Master's Degree: 45%
  • Doctoral Degree: 4%


Caty Borum Chattoo is co-director of the Center for Media & Social Impact and executive in residence at American University School of Communication.